I am a radio junkie. At home, in the car, sitting at my desk with a pair of headphones, I almost always have public radio on. In Canada, our public broadcasting system is one of our most prominent public institutions and, in a county whose geographic vastness defies understanding, hearing each other’s stories is one of the best ways for us to get to know each other.
Some of my best childhood memories are of looking out the window, watching snow fall while listening to the radio or to stories on records and tapes. As I’ve shared some of those stories with my children, I’ve come to realize that many of my expressions and inflections come from those tapes; they snuck into my brain.
But as much as I’m a fan of books on tape and their contemporary counterparts, the audiobook and the podcast, I squirm a little when I see advertisements for “bedtime podcasts” in my social media feed. The thought of children lying in bed, listening to a recording instead of curled up with a book and a caregiver, makes me fear for our future.
Reading to a child is a multi-sensory experience that transcends the words and pictures on the page. It is a secular ritual, a cultural touchstone, and a quiet moment in a too-loud world. Reading to a child is about rhyme and song and rhythm, the cornerstones of phonemic awareness. It’s about demonstrating your own love for and care with language by taking the time to share a book. It’s about an investment in a shared experience with a child.
It’s about the coziness of being together, laughing at the silly adventures of Duck in a Truck, shivering with fear as He Who Shall Not Be Named returns to Hogwarts, or shedding a tear as Benny from “Bagels for Benny” learns that giving bagels to a poor man is akin to giving them to God. My children deliberately go and get the “books that make Mommy cry” (there are a bunch, I admit) because they know they carry that emotional punch that makes us snuggle closer under the blanket.
As a classroom teacher, it is one of the best ways to build a caring community; coming together to share a book is equally pleasurable whether you struggle at school or fly through every assignment. Even older children, although they may roll their eyes, enjoy listening to someone read them a story, particularly if the reading builds suspense by being drawn out over the course of several classes. I have a number of amazing colleagues who read to their middle and high school classes daily. If they skip a day, the kids complain.
So, please, download that podcast and listen to it in the car, play it while you’re making dinner, or enjoy it on a quiet afternoon. (Slate’s podcast network Panoply recently launched a podcast app for kids; it’s called Pinna.) But please, please don’t get sucked in by the marketing. Children who are read to are more likely to become readers and good readers have a huge leg up in school and in life. No podcast — no technology, period — can do that for you so snuggle in with your kid and grab their (or your) favorite book; it’s getting cold outside.